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Be Hear Now

by Frank Forencich on November 21, 2010

Question from the audience:  “What do you think about when you’re running?”

Answer: “I think about running.”

Chris McDougall

author of Born to Run


Here’s a “what if?” scenario for you:

What if you woke up one day and discovered that the sensations you were experiencing in your eyes, ears, nose and skin didn’t match up with the physical reality around you? Wouldn’t you find that condition disorienting and disturbing? And what if that disconnected experience continued for a long period of time? Wouldn’t you begin to feel alienated from the world? And ultimately, wouldn’t that disconnect begin to make you, quite literally, crazy?

And, to come at it from the other direction, isn’t it the case that one of the primary goals of physical and performance training is to make sensation congruent with the environment in which we work and play? Isn’t it essential that we sense and perceive the world as-is? Don’t athletes and other high performers spend years, even decades trying to fine tune their nervous systems to the subtle qualities of their environments?

So what then are we to make of the epidemic of sensory distortion brought about by portable music players, now in widespread, almost universal use by exercisers? What are we to make of the fact that millions of people now spend a considerable portion of their days in profound sensory disconnect with the world around them?

This is no trivial question; the implications of this kind of behavior are immense–we are talking about billions of hours of human attention each year, directed away from the world as it is. What if those billions of hours were spent in direct sensory connection with the world? How would our consciousness and behavior change?

Some observers have looked at this audio-electronic disconnect between sensation and reality and dubbed it schizophonia. This word may be new to you, but I can guarantee that you haven’t heard the last of it; this conversation is going to become increasingly commonplace in years to come.

Schizophonia, of course, is a play on the word schizophrenia, that notorious mental illness marked by a distorted sense of reality, disintegration of the thought process, bizarre delusions and auditory hallucinations. Of course, it would be foolish to suggest a causal connection between schizophonia (the act of wearing an iPod while running) and schizophrenia (the mental illness), but the parallels are just a little too close for comfort. After all, if you’ve been wearing an iPod consistently for months or years, you already are, in a very real sense, disconnected from reality and your body. You may not yet be experiencing the profound symptoms of delusion and hallucination that characterize full-blown schizophrenia, but you are clearly out of contact with the world. And even if you do manage to get your heart rate up and condition your musculoskeletal system, you still cannot claim to be “fit,” especially if the word “fit” implies a close relationship with the world at large.

meet the schizophonics

So, if schizophonia is the general term describing the disconnect between audio reality and piped-in sensation, individuals who practice this behavior must be described as schizophonics. Not only are schizophonics disconnected from their physical experience while running, they’re also cut off from the people around them, lost in their own worlds of sound. Nothing says “I’m not here” better than plugging the earbuds into your head. Nothing says “leave me alone” more effectively than wearing an iPod. If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation with a schizophonic, you know the challenge; they’re nodding their heads, but you’re never really sure if they’re actually paying attention to the words coming out of your mouth.

Schizophonics often claim that they need the music to provide the necessary motivation to work out or go for a run. But this begs an obvious question: if you really need an artificial stimulus to provide the psychological drive for your workout experience, wouldn’t you be better off choosing some form of movement that actually generates pleasure in and of itself? If you need artificial stimulus to get your body moving, maybe you’re in the wrong sport.

There’s another question that we also must ask at this point: Would any wild animal voluntarily wear a device that pumped substitute sensory stimulation into its nervous system? Unlikely. Wild animals are smart enough to know that their very survival depends on tight integration between sensory experience and what the military calls “facts on the ground.” That, after all, is one of the main reasons that animals–both human and non-human–have a nervous system in the first place. When we run with artificial audio, we pay disrespect to an incredibly elegant system that has been hundreds of millions of years in the making.

the death of the monotask

Schizophonia is rapidly becoming one of the most dramatic and potentially destructive forms of multi-tasking in the modern world. Human performance experts are united in their cautions against multitasking in the workplace, but their warnings are usually directed against commonplace disconnects such as checking email while talking on the phone. In contrast, wearing an iPod while running creates a radical disconnection between body and environment, at the very time when attention is essential, not only for safety and injury-resistance, but for quality of movement and experience. Remember, running is a skill event that demands attention to the subtle nuances of sensation and motor control. If we treat it as a mindless, attentionless event to be simply endured, we’ll be more prone to injury and poor results.

My martial art sensei would be appalled by the proliferation of music players in the world of physical training. For him, and for many other teachers of the transformative arts, the whole point of the physical exercise is to enter into a complete experience with full attention. In the martial arts, this quality is known as zanshin, but we find the same emphasis on highly-focused training in all sorts of disciplines, from dance to medicine to academics. If you want to do something well and be transformed in the process, you’ve got to give yourself completely to the experience. In contrast, the iPod heaps disrespect on the training process and trivializes it. The message it reflects is simple: I find this activity boring and I need to be entertained.

It’s not just running, athletics, or martial art by the way. Full engagement in process is now becoming the preferred practice for transformation and performance at every level, a point made clear by Jim Loehr in his landmark book, The Power of Full Engagement. The formula for improved performance is simple: high contrast living. When resting, rest deeply; when engaged, engage completely. If you’re not going to devote all your resources to a process, you can’t expect to get much out of it.

the color green

Our discussion of schizophonia goes well beyond the disconnection of individual mind-bodies and tells us something essential about the larger human-earth relationship. In an era in which almost everyone claims to be an environmentalist, we are apt to wonder: Who is actually walking the walk? What are we to conclude about the environmental credentials of people who intentionally disconnect themselves from their environment with a technological device? Some will say that the iPod is a harmless entertainment tool of minimal impact, but in fact, intentional sensory disconnection is the antithesis of green. Symbolically at least, schizophonia is an act of profound environmental ignorance, even disrespect. If you really want to save the world, you have to know the world. And how are we to know the world if we intentionally pipe substitute stimulation into the very center of our brains?

So, my sisters and brothers, the time has come to ditch the Pod (and the shoes, if you can manage it). If you hate running and need a crutch to get you through the miles, stop running! Find something you’re passionate about and enter into that with your entire being. Pay the process the respect it deserves. Be. Hear. Now.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew So November 21, 2010 at 10:57 pm

I fully agree that running should be an action that requires a symbiosis with the outside environment. It’s saddening to no longer see people who enjoy running but view it only as a chore so they don’t become fat. This is why so many people are plugged in; they’re trying to distract themselves from what they perceive to be a tedious activity.

Nevertheless, I think that music has its place in play. The first exception I thought of was capoeira although one could point to all forms of dance. When listening to music, there’s something in the human subconscious that inspires the body to move.

Michael November 21, 2010 at 11:16 pm

There’s an amusing comment on this trend in an article on the Alexander Technique by John Nicholls:

“The idea seems to be to occupy the mind while the body toils. You remember John Lennon sang “Turn off your mind and float downstream”? This has now become “Turn off your mind and pedal uphill.”

http://atnyc.us/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/AmSATMemLecturePt.1.pdf

I have to say, however, that while it makes no sense to me that someone should go to a gym and do this, I do have sympathy for people who want music at work. What people do in their leisure time is chosen activity – and, as you say, if they don’t want to do what they’re doing, they’d better do something else.

At work it’s a different matter. Unfortunately, in complex societies like ours most people can’t choose to do work they enjoy. A few people do what they love. But very large numbers of people have to do very boring and repetitive things simply to pay the bills. It’s not surprising if they want the radio on, or these days an iPod in, to lighten the load a little by adding a bit of interest and entertainment to their day.

R.M. Koske November 22, 2010 at 6:12 am

I struggle a lot with my health, and there are days when an easy 10 minute stroll is a prospect that is as exhausting to consider as a ten-mile run. I usually feel better after, but getting started is *hard*. When the weather is fine and I can do it outside, audio input of any kind is an intrusion, but when it is rainy and I’m walking in the basement hallway at work, I do allow myself to be schizhophonic. I’m already specifically ignoring the signals my body is giving me (which are “curl up somewhere warm and don’t move,” and usually are wrong) so I don’t really want to start concentrating on how bad I feel while I walk back and forth down a very long, gray hallway. The audiobook is a bribe to get me moving, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to give it up any time soon. In my defense, when I say “stroll” I mean it. I’m walking rather slowly, in a very safe place. The disconnect from my body is the worst consequence of it, and on the days when I “need” the audiobook to walk, I usually find the disconnect to be a relief from my discomfort.

But you’re absolutely right – it is a bad idea to use schizophonia as a matter of habit. I’ll make more of an effort to go without the book in the hallway on days when I feel fine.

James Wilson November 22, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Just tonight in my yoga class, the instructor talked of exit doors. These are the “way’s out” we give ourselves during an experience. They can be as big as “if I do that I’l hurt myself because I’m too weak,” or as subtle as thinking about the cute girl in front of you. Either way, these are tools are brain uses to distract us from the moment. We are only around in this life for a short and finite time, which points to the great value of a pure experience. If you wanna run, go run and fill your entire experience with running. If you wanna listen to music, do so. If you want to listen to music while running, DO SO FULLY! run in rhythm, make it a dance, fully explore the experience, but honestly observe when it is used as a distraction. Using music as a way to placate yourself does not get to the true value of the experience. If you need a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, Maybe you need to better embrace the value of the medicine.

Ricky November 29, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Started my hard rowing session today with the headphones on and got really out of sync. Then I remembered this post and took them off and regrouped. Had one of the best sessions yet. I could hear my breathing and got into an amazing rhythm.

Frank Forencich November 29, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Yes, congrats!
The music of the body is intoxicating!

Anna Floyd November 30, 2010 at 3:46 pm

What a great post! Years ago I ran to music, and gave it up when I ditched the treadmill for the outdoors. When I do go to gyms these days, they seem like such depressing places – so many people in the same space, in completely separate worlds, plugged into TVs or ipods. Seems like the need for distraction is a sure sign that we need more exuberant exercise! Who needs music blaring when they feel joyful?

As always, Frank, you are the master of word play! “Be. Hear. Now.” Spot on!

Dr. Kwame M. Brown December 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

Frank, insightful as always, and I think you make some salient points here. I think if this is a constant for someone, and they are completely sacrificing a connection to nature because of it, it truly is a shame. If they are doing it to disconnect because movement is a chore and they don’t want to engage with people, it truly is a shame.

However, let me give you another perspective and see what you think:

In my culture, music has been an essential part of activity for centuries. What I notice in my movement is that music ADDS to my awareness, it provides a backdrop rhythm. In fact, I feel my feet hit the ground MORE when I have music, especially rhythmic music. I move more fluidly, catch more balls, and am overall “sharper”. This is true with my yoga practice as well.

Furthermore, sometimes I WANT to be separated and in my own space. Sometimes I WANT to connect through the filter of beautiful, rhythmic music. Other times, I want to reconnect. We must allow for that, in my opinion, in these modern times in the environments that most of us live in.

Now, when I play with other humans – no headphones. Because it does hamper my engagement with other humans and with animals to have that background. We can collectively have music though. And they become my music.

Another scenario is if I am in the middle of the forest. I would never have my headphones on then, because it’s dangerous. I need to be aware of sounds in my environment to keep myself safe.

So, in my opinion, we need a more nuanced view of this taking into account culture, individuality, and situation.

What say you, brothers and sisters?

Frank Forencich December 2, 2010 at 9:47 am

Ahh, yes, nuance.
You are right of course: using the right toys at the right time.
It’s a judgement call.
Thanks for the insight!

Erin Mooney December 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

Love this post! Much to my regret, I spent nearly 50 years disconnected from the natural world — not so much from headphones as from the normal things of our human existence that remove us from our environments (cars, inside entertainment like TV, the cubicle workstation with no windows to the outdoors, etc.). For some reason, a few years ago, I began paying attention to birds and trees and flowers and other living things around me and when I feel connected with that, I am happier than any other time. It’s amazing how the natural world takes me out of the tumble of thoughts in my head and puts me right here right now. That is more soothing than anything.

So thanks for this extremely important post. Of course what you are describing is 10 times worse now with mobile phones. It’s as if staring into a screen at all times is the only thing worth doing. This is incredibly sad.

Nona Mills December 22, 2010 at 9:17 am

I struggle a lot with my health, and there are days when an easy 10 minute stroll is a prospect that is as exhausting to consider as a ten-mile run. I usually feel better after, but getting started is *hard*. When the weather is fine and I can do it outside, audio input of any kind is an intrusion, but when it is rainy and I’m walking in the basement hallway at work, I do allow myself to be schizhophonic. I’m already specifically ignoring the signals my body is giving me (which are “curl up somewhere warm and don’t move,” and usually are wrong) so I don’t really want to start concentrating on how bad I feel while I walk back and forth down a very long, gray hallway. The audiobook is a bribe to get me moving, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to give it up any time soon. In my defense, when I say “stroll” I mean it. I’m walking rather slowly, in a very safe place. The disconnect from my body is the worst consequence of it, and on the days when I “need” the audiobook to walk, I usually find the disconnect to be a relief from my discomfort. But you’re absolutely right – it is a bad idea to use schizophonia as a matter of habit. I’ll make more of an effort to go without the book in the hallway on days when I feel fine.

keet June 8, 2013 at 10:48 am

seashells from 451 Fahrenheit

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